Former US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, remembered as ‘Laser Smart’ and dedicated public servant | New

Like many public policy sophomores at Harvard Kennedy School, Bethan M. Saunders was nervous about finding someone to advise her on the policy analysis exercise. But she also had a dream candidate in mind: former US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.

At the start of the fall semester, Saunders spotted Carter walking down a Kennedy School hallway and chased after him, shouting, “Professor Carter, Professor Carter.” After chatting about their summers, Saunders told Carter about an idea that really excited him for the policy analysis exercise — and eventually worked up the courage to ask him to serve as his adviser.

“‘Yeah sure. I’d be happy to do that,” Saunders recalled saying, leaving her “in complete shock.”

“I was so excited to work with someone who had such important insights and experience, and truly a brilliant scholar and public servant,” Saunders said. “And looking back, I shouldn’t have been surprised at all because he cares so much about students and is incredibly dedicated to building future leaders, future public servants.”

A longtime academic and civil servant who would become the 25th Secretary of Defense under President Barack Obama, Ashton B. Carter died Oct. 24 in Boston after suffering a heart attack. He was 68 years old.

“A totally normal child” who was “destined for great things”

Carter was born in Philadelphia on September 24, 1954, the youngest of four children born to William and Ann Carter. A graduate of Abington Senior High School, he studied at Yale University before attending Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar.

Cynthia DeFelice, one of Carter’s older sisters, said it took her a while to “understand that Ash was truly different and destined for great things.”

Carter graduated summa cum laude from Yale College in 1976 with degrees in medieval history and physics. As an undergraduate, Carter was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa Academic Honor Society and won Yale’s Andrew D. White Essay Prize in European History. He obtained a doctorate. in theoretical physics at Oxford in 1979.

While Carter is universally described by friends and colleagues as exceptionally intelligent, DeFelice maintains that he was “a perfectly normal kid.”

“He’s, basically, just a goofball,” DeFelice said. “No one could make me laugh like my brothers. And my husband would walk into the house and he could tell I was talking to Ash, or my brother Chip when he was alive, just from my laughter.

But his multidisciplinary intelligence always shone. As an adult, she says, he did math problems to relax.

“Just recently he had ordered a whole bunch of calculus and physics books to relax on vacation,” she said.

Carter began his career with the Department of Defense in 1981, just two years after earning his doctorate. Three years later, he began teaching at Harvard University after being hired by then-HKS Dean Graham T. Allison ’62 to work as an assistant professor. For much of the next 38 years, Carter would spend his career oscillating between teaching positions at the Kennedy School in Cambridge and serving in the Department of Defense in Washington.

Allison said Carter was “laser smart and really driven by ambition to try to make a difference in the world.” But he added that Carter’s outburst could also make him “anxious — even clumsy, often abrasive, in fact, when he was younger — because he was super smart and often dealt with people who didn’t understand. “

At first, it was uncertain whether Carter would succeed at the Kennedy School, Allison said, because the school’s initial attempts to focus more on nuclear science and technology were met with skepticism from faculty members. But Carter proved his versatility as a teacher, choosing to teach a statistics course in the core curriculum despite his training as a physicist.

“If Ash decided to do something, he could do it,” Allison said.

Carter quickly rose through the ranks at the Kennedy School, becoming the director of the school’s Center for Science and International Affairs in 1990. A year later, following a coup attempt against the President of the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev, Carter formed a task force at HKS that sought to identify a strategy to maintain control over Soviet nuclear weapons in the event the country collapsed.

Along with Steven E. Miller, who currently directs the international security program at HKS, Carter authored a monograph entitled “Soviet Nuclear Fusion”, which served as an initial response to this problem. Carter then traveled to Washington, where he successfully lobbied Senators Richard G. Lugar and Samuel A. Nunn to pass legislation inspired by the work.

There were thousands of nuclear weapons left outside Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and some of them were almost certain to end up on the international black market, Allison said.

“What does it look like in the world? So it looks like 9/11 with a nuclear bomb,” Allison said. “And a nuke – or two, or a dozen – going off in cities like New York or Boston.”

The afternoon after President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, he invited Allison to the White House for a meeting where he asked her and Carter to serve in the Department of Defense. His administration then implemented its strategies for disarming the former Soviet Union.

R. Nicholas Burns, who is currently US Ambassador to China, wrote in an email that he worked with Carter to seek “new relationships” with Russia and Ukraine “at a very different time. Of the history”.

“We worked closely within the Clinton administration on U.S. efforts to forge new relationships with Russia and Ukraine following the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. “, wrote Burns.

Carter served as Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration from 1993 to 1996. He returned to Harvard in 1997, but 12 years later, after Obama’s election, Carter returned to Washington to serve again in the Department of Defense, this time as an undersecretary.

“No one will replace Ash here”

When Carter served in the Obama administration, he had a practice he took very seriously: he frequently visited troops at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, at a time when hundreds of American soldiers were dying in Afghanistan each year. .

Eric B. Rosenbach, who served as Carter’s chief of staff during his tenure as defense secretary, said Carter and his wife, Stephanie, “at least once a month, sometimes every weekend, would go visit to people” in military hospitals.

In 2015, Obama asked Carter to be the first senior US official to meet then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after the Iran nuclear deal was signed. During a tense meeting, Netanyahu then “gave Ash the deal” on how the deal posed a threat to Israel’s very existence, according to Rosenbach.

But Carter, who attended high school three miles from Netanyahu’s alma mater, Cheltenham High School, had a trick up her sleeve to ease the tension.

“About 25 minutes after Netanyahu chewed it, Ash said, ‘You know, Prime Minister, it’s fine, but I want you to understand that at least my high school beat your high school in football the year you you were a senior,” Rosenbach recalled.

Netanyahu burst out laughing. “‘Are you kidding me? Did you go to that high school?’ Rosenbach recalls Netanyahu asking Carter.

“It was one of those times when the pressure was really high — it was Ash doing something important for the president,” Rosenbach said. But Carter “brought a human touch that kind of deflated the whole situation, so that’s one of my favorite memories of him.”

Carter championed several initiatives during the Obama years to improve security for military personnel. Redesigning military vehicles to be more blast resistant reduced the number of soldiers injured or killed by mines, and was one of Carter’s most proud accomplishments, according to Rosenbach.

Carter also pushed for the development of ballistic undergarments to protect troops from traumatic injury.

“He also took this troop protection mission very seriously,” Rosenbach said.

After Carter was promoted to the top job in the Department of Defense, he opened up combat roles in the military to women and ended a ban on transgender members.

“Our mission is to defend this country, and we don’t want barriers unrelated to an individual’s qualification to prevent us from recruiting or retaining the soldier, sailor, airman or marine who can best accomplish the mission,” Carter said in a June 2016 speech announcing the end of the ban.

Grace Y. Park, a current HKS student who identifies as female and non-binary, said she joined the military at a time when “it was sort of a no-brainer that female servicemen didn’t serve not in combat and that transgender military personnel did not serve”. It’s no use.

“Just by changing those policies, the culture and the language around how we talked about those kinds of vulnerable communities in the military changed completely,” Park said of the changes Carter made while at the department. of the defense. “He was able to do it in a very short time.”

After the Obama administration ended in 2017, Carter made a familiar move: to Cambridge, where he returned to the Kennedy School, this time to serve as director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

In an Oct. 25 statement to the Kennedy School announcing Carter’s death, HKS Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf emphasized Carter’s love for teaching and mentoring students.

“He said one of the main reasons he came back here was his experience at the Department of Defense of going overseas and being greeted with the greeting ‘Hello Professor Carter’ from his former students – so he wanted to come back and work with more students, and he helped raise money for scholarships,” Elmendorf wrote.

Allison said Carter was an “extraordinary person” whose death left a big hole in the Kennedy School.

“People say, ‘Well, who’s going to replace Ash here?’ The answer is no one will replace Ash here,” Allison said. “There is no such person who combines a strong foundation in science and technology, and a fierce appetite to try to understand all the frontiers of technology, and who has this deepest set of commitments to national security, politics and policy-making.”

—Editor Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @MHerszenhorn.